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Canada is a leader in women’s equality, ranked in the top 10 among 95 countries in the institute’s report. But data has shown little improvement over the past 20 years.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Promoting gender equality in the work force is simply good business. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, a private-sector think tank, closing the gender gap in Canada could boost our GDP growth by $150-billion over the next decade.

Canada is a leader in women's equality, ranked in the top 10 among 95 countries in the institute's report. But data has shown little improvement over the past 20 years.

How can the gender gap be narrowed? We asked three leaders in this space to offer advice on key steps businesses can take to advance women in their organizations.

Mentorship and sponsorship

Two ways to boost the careers of women are mentorship and sponsorship; they are often confused but they aren't the same thing. Mentorship is about one-on-one relationships that offer feedback and support, while sponsorship is about people advocating for you when you're not there. The difference between them is often defined as "mentors talk to you and sponsors talk about you."

Pamela Jeffery, partner and national lead for inclusion and diversity strategy, KPMG LLP: "Because leaders have historically been male, men are more comfortable mentoring and sponsoring people who are most like them, so other men. In the absence of a formal program, that continues. Putting a program in place gives opportunity to women to receive that important mentoring, which then leads to sponsorship.

"To be able to talk about someone, you need to be able to feel confident in what you're saying. But you can only talk about me if you know me. That's why I don't believe in formal sponsorship programs. I believe in formal mentoring programs so the participants come to know each other. But there should be a clear expectation that sponsorship by mentors is important to the organization in order to identify who the leaders will be."

Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada, a global nonprofit group working to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion: "Research has shown that women are over-mentored but under-sponsored. Generally, there isn't a lack of people prepared to engage in a mentorship relationship with women, but the difference between men and women is that for men, mentorship relationships are much more likely to evolve into sponsorship relationships than is the case for women. We need to expand our networks of potential sponsors and sponsorship relationships by encouraging male leaders to take on up-and-coming women to create more opportunities.

"Harvard has documented that some men are uncomfortable being in sponsorship relationships with women because there's a perceived undertone that maybe something funny is going on. We need to normalize these relationships and get rid of that stigma.

"If men and women are in meetings together, that just means people are working together. We need to take these things out of the bedroom and back to the office. The more that these relationships exist and the more success we see with them, the more normal they will be."

Jennifer Murtagh, chief executive officer, Minerva Foundation for BC Women, a non-profit group that helps women develop their leadership capacity: "Mentorship is great, but it's not as powerful as sponsorship or other methods. Organizations should consider investing in leadership and performance coaching for women employees. It's worthwhile to start early because that really builds their leadership capacity, helps establish a mindset and contributes to engagement.

"The latest McKinsey research shows the top two things that actually advance people in the workplace are the CEO's engagement in it – so it needs to be on the CEO's desk – and specific leadership programs targeted at women."

The wage gap

Why are women still earning less than their male counterparts? When it comes to pay equity, organizations have to measure and compare salaries across roles to figure out the blind spots. Everyone agrees that having good data is key in determining the value that each position brings to an organization, regardless of who occupies it.

Ms. Jeffery: "You have to have the data. There's been a lack of rigour, particularly in executing inclusion and diversity strategy. Any company has to start with knowing where they're at to be able to improve diversity and inclusion. The data will deliver insights.

Ms.  Biesen: "The first thing an employer needs to do is to get the facts, so really dig into the data. That's a critical starting point. Understand where the gaps are.

"Look at all the components, because if you only look at base salary and bonus, you could be missing all kinds of layers of reward and compensation – bonuses, stock options, share grants, benefits packages – that are distributed differentially over your work force. The more complex the system, the more data gathering and scrubbing you need to do.

"Be really honest in evaluating and comparing roles. What are truly like-to-like roles? You can't take the bias out of the person, but you can attempt to take all of the bias out of the processes in the system. These things require a dispassionate review and analysis.

"Then it comes down to transparency. Figure out a way to be transparent without sharing it with your competitors. At a minimum, you can have transparency up to the board of directors who should be considering all of their stakeholders, which includes employees. Sunlight is a great cleanser."

Ms. Murtagh: "Some organizations invite all candidates to negotiate their salaries. They let everybody know it's okay and expected, because women are way less likely to negotiate. The gap can occur right at the entry level, since men are more likely to negotiate and therefore more likely to start out at a higher base pay."

Child care

Historically, women have borne the brunt of child care. In order to change those societal norms – and an employer's possible prejudice – men need to step up when paternity leave is on the table. Unfortunately, a lot of men feel reluctant to do so for fear of being penalized.

Ms. Jeffery: "It's very important that companies encourage men to take advantage of parental leave. A best practice is for the leaders of the organization to model the behaviour. It's one thing for a CEO to say it; it's another for the organization to model it, measure it and monitor the uptake, and not discourage individuals from participating.

Ms. Biesen: "All these issues of gender inequality in the workplace aren't just a woman's problem. It's society's problem. The more we come to acknowledge and deal with that, the more progress we'll make.

"I'd broaden child care to family care. This is where business cannot do this on their own. Government has a role to play in how we approach family care. If you look at examples in other countries such as Norway or Sweden, parental care is legislated. There's an expectation that both parents, male and female, will take a portion of the child care.

"What that means is that when a company is looking to hire someone, and are trying to choose between a male and female candidate, they won't need to think about whether the woman could go on maternity leave, because they know that either one could take a family leave. It just takes it off the table.

Ms. Murtagh: "Companies can start by asking hard questions around their current policies and processes. Are they consistent with what is needed to attract, develop, train and promote and retain the best talent, including women? That would include benefit offerings and employment policies, such as part-time employment, job-sharing options, flexible or virtual work arrangements, paternity and maternity leave and other paid time off. Flexibility is as important as actual child care."

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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